Why do Renewable Energy Sources Matter?

This is post one of a four-part series examining the pros and cons of six renewable energy sources. Understanding the benefits and limitations of renewable energy is an important theme repeated throughout the AP Environmental Science course framework. This introductory post highlights the environmental and social benefits of making the transition to an economy more reliant on renewable energy sources.

Pop quiz! What do the years 2014, 2010, and 2005 have in common? Hint: it has something to do with our changing climate.

If you guessed that these are three of the warmest years on record, you’re right! In fact, ten of the warmest years ever recorded have all occurred within the last 17 years. Observable changes in average surface temperature indicate a rapidly changing planet. Last fall, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released their Fifth Assessment Report (AR5) on the state of our global climate, highlighting just how real climate change is. The IPCC used some of the most severe language ever used to describe climate change, calling it “unequivocal,” “unprecedented,” and largely a result of human activity.

So, how are humans driving climate change? The answer lies in our ever-increasing demand for energy. Energy security has long been a predictor of economic security and growth. Those with uninterrupted access to affordable energy are able to harness that energy to power factories, build cities, and meet the needs of a growing population or economy. But this growth does not come without a cost. Our economies are largely powered by fossil fuels. When burned in excess, carbon dioxide (CO2) and other greenhouse gasses disrupt the natural balance of our planet’s atmosphere – enhancing the earth’s natural greenhouse effect through a series of positive feedback loops.

Science tells us that if we continue down a path of business as usual, we are in for a great deal of trouble. Demand for energy is expected to double by the year 2050. If we will continue to source our energy needs from fossil fuels, we will do irreversible damage to our natural ecosystems. Is there a way to break this trend and make economic growth green? The solution may lie in renewable energy.

Renewable energy sources are defined as any source of energy that is naturally replenished. Examples include: solar, wind, tidal, wave, and geothermal energy (we will touch more on those later). These resources have long been touted as a viable solution to our climate and energy crises. Renewable energy sources are free, plentiful, and – when harnessed properly – have very small environmental footprints! Furthermore, renewable energy may be part of the solution in improving quality of life around the world. The United Nations Development Programme identifies sustainable energy as an “engine for poverty reduction, social progress, equity, enhanced resilience, economic growth and environmental sustainability.”

Unfortunately, renewable energy sources make up only a small fraction of the energy we consume. Currently, only 11 percent of world marketed energy consumption is from renewable sources. Environment, economic development, and energy are all interconnected. Energy security is vital to improving economic development and increasing quality of life, but we must find a way to sustain economic growth without continued damage to our planet. This four-part series we will cover six common renewable energy sources and explore the benefits and drawbacks to each. We hope you will follow along as we delve into everything you want to know about renewable energy!

Renewable Energy Series:

Post 1: Why do Renewable Energy Sources Matter?

Post 2: What are the Pros and Cons of Solar and Wind Energy?

Post 3: What are the Pros and Cons of Hydro and Tidal Energy? 

Post 4: What are the Pros and Cons of Biomass and Geothermal Energy?